Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Corrections: Be careful what you wish for

Correction policies aren't built for this sort of thing:

Because of an editing error, a story in Saturday's Observer about a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer who was cleared in the fatal shooting of a suspect omitted a key fact. Police said they recovered a handgun from near Aaron Winchester's body.

Interesting on lots of levels, isn't it? For one, there's how the gunshot victim came to be identified as a "suspect" (he isn't called that in the story that's being "corrected" here). For another, there's that "editing error" thing. What's that mean: error of commission (editor took the fact out) or error of omission (editor failed to correct absence of key fact)? Where in the editing chain did the error take place? If the "key fact" was in the original, where was it? If it had been in the second graf, along with "five other witnesses ... never reported seeing a gun in his hand," it almost certainly wouldn't have been cut; why was it placed somewhere that made it look not-so-key to whoever took it out?

As a career rimrat, of course, Your Editor is always awaiting corrections blamed on "errors" elsewhere in the news process:

Due to a reporting error, a bunch of local people were quoted in an article about Iran on Page 1A Wednesday. None of them have any idea of what they're talking about.

Due to a management error, a metro columnist was not drawn and quartered after last year's "Things I'm thankful for" column. As a result, this year's version appears on Page 1B.

But the real point is the nature of corrections in general. Corrections are about facts, and correction policies tend to look like the one that lands on the doorstep here: "The Free Press corrects all errors of fact." In real life, that usually means something like "We'll correct most errors of fact, most of the time, as long as we know about them and we don't deem them too trivial or otherwise inconvenient." But today's item isn't about facts; it's about context, or the stuff that allows facts to mean what they mean. You can understand why the Obs would come in for a certain amount of heat over this omission -- not just from the usual run of bottom-feeding readers ("Do not forget, he died by choice"), but from the cops and the DA's office. Context has a way of making stories messier and less conclusive, and that's often a good thing.

When you open the door to context-based corrections, though, you never know what's going to come sneaking in. Allow me to suggest a couple candidates, based on a bunch of stuff from 2002-03 that's churning around the content analysis mill this week:

An article on Page 1A Tuesday warned of the likelihood that Iraq would use chemical weapons against the United States. It should have pointed out that Iraq did not use chemical weapons against U.S. forces in 1991, when it actually had the means to do so, and that deterrence has not been repealed since then.

An editorial on page 10A Thursday said that Saddam Hussein should be overthrown because he had gassed his own people. True enough, but that was 15 years ago, when Iraq (at war with Iran) was enjoying the tacit support of the Reagan administration. If we had really thought gassing people was such a big deal, maybe we should have put it on the front page instead of another story about fire ants, huh?

Interesting decision by the Obs, but -- be careful what you wish for. Some genies go not gently back into the bottle.



Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

Fire ants are always front page, man!

3:05 PM, November 26, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What do you call the "editor's mouse slipped while working on the article, resulting in unintentional deletion of key facts" error? Negligence?

8:31 PM, November 26, 2008  
Blogger fev said...

What was it Sydney Greenstreet said in Wilmer's role in the fire on the La Paloma? "No doubt he was careless with matches."

9:06 PM, November 26, 2008  
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